12/05/2013 03:00 pm ET | Updated Feb 04, 2014

Making Kids' Tablet Time More Meaningful

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During busy times like the holiday season, many of us parents turn to our mobile devices to help manage our kids while we manage... everything else. Engaging the services of a digital babysitter is not something to boast about, but it doesn't need to be anything to be ashamed of, either. So, how can we make the most of the time our kids spend with technology over the holiday break? Our friends at Common Sense Media have shared some great ideas about making the most of kids' TV time, and I'd like to do something similar for tablet time.

The first thing to understand is that all tablet time is not created equal. It's easy to think of tablet time as a single activity, but that simplification leads us to wonder about "goodness or badness" at the wrong level of detail. Perhaps the only thing we can say about tablet time per se is that it's inherently interactive (and even that is neither good nor bad). There are wonderful and terrible experiences available for children on tablets, just as on TV or in books; and any experience might be great for some kids but awful for others. The question to ask is, How does this particular tablet experience help my child grow?

Another consideration is that tablet time should be a thing your kid does, not the thing. A dose of digital engagement can be a great addition to a day spent reading, running, building, singing, exploring and helping around the house. When your child clutches the tablet like a drowning man with a life preserver, though, it's time for a heart-to-heart. One approach is to explain that your child's job is to become a great grown-up. To do that, he or she needs to learn a lot of different things. Then ask: If a construction crew built a house using nothing but doors (or sinks, or light bulbs), would it be a good house? Likewise, a child needs to spend time doing all kinds of different things so that they can learn all the cool stuff they'll need to be a great grown-up.

Most importantly, the easiest way to ensure that your child's tablet time is worthwhile is by spending that time with them. Curling up with your child and the tablet gives you a window into what he or she is doing, of course, but it also gives you a chance to enrich the experience by talking with your child about it. Ask questions: Why do you think that just happened? What do you think would happen if you did this? What do you like about this particular app? What do you not like? Why do you think this app's creators made it work like this? Would you like to create your own app someday? If so, what might it do? (This co-engagement can make even otherwise bad tablet experiences worthwhile because you can talk with your child about why they're bad.) And afterward, help your child reflect on the tablet activity by drawing analogies between what happened in a particular app and something in the real world. Connecting learning from one context to another is at the heart of education.

Of course, when we're co-engaging with our kids, the tablet isn't really serving as a digital babysitter. But consider: If you co-engage alongside your child using a favorite app just once, you can then speak intelligently with him or her about the app after a tablet session even if you were in the other room making dinner during that session. So pay the short-term cost of diving in with your child and exploring an activity together, and then reap the long-term gain of being able to hand your child the tablet and know that they're engaging with something worthwhile -- and that they'll be able to engage with you about that activity when they're done!

Dylan Arena is co-founder and chief learning scientist at Kidaptive and father of two children under the age of five. He spent eleven years at Stanford studying cognitive science, game-based learning, and next-generation assessment while earning a bachelor's degree in Symbolic Systems, a master's degree in Philosophy, a master's degree in Statistics, and a Ph.D. in Learning Sciences and Technology Design.